When you’ve seen as many horror movies as many of us obsessive fans have, it can be difficult to be shown anything new. We know the monsters. We know the archetypes. We know the clichés and we know the form. By branching out to the horror movies of other countries, though, it is possible to make discoveries that feel fresh and original, because even if the stories being told aren’t anything new, the films have their own unique cultural identity that helps change the lens through which we view even those horror archetypes which might otherwise seem familiar. After absorbing decades of American folklore on screen, it’s nice to see what’s scary around the world.
Doran and Yoav Paz’s latest effort, The Golem, is such a film. The first original production from Dread Central Presents (now rebranded as simply “Dread”), The Golem is a movie not only steeped in Jewish folklore, but one that’s about the very experience of living as a Jew in a world where Judaism is regularly met with hostility and fear. Though told as a period piece—an impressively mounted period piece at that—both the concerns and the horrors presented in the movie feel contemporary, even hundreds of years after The Golem is set. A big part of what makes it special is that it’s so culturally specific while at the same time finding a sort of universality that makes the characters sympathetic, their plight relatable.
Hani Furstenberg plays Hanna, a woman whose marriage to her husband, Benjamin (Ishai Golan), has deteriorated since the loss of their young son. Making matters much, much worse, a group of foreigners has invaded their small village and is holding the local healer prisoner while he treats one of their children. To combat the threat of violence at the hands of these invaders, Hanna creates a golem—a creature famous in Jewish folklore, often made of clay and existing only to do the bidding of its creator. But the connection Hanna has to her creation means the golem manifests in the image of her dead son, making it that much harder to put a stop to its reign of terror once it is unleashed.
As someone who was left cold by the found footage clunkiness of the Paz brothers’ previous effort, JeruZalem, I was excited by the technical and stylistic leaps the directing team makes with The Golem. While I’m guessing it was made on a fairly low budget (as is the case with almost all non-studio horror these days… and even some studio horror), the movie is lush and detailed, creating a real sense of time and place that’s different than almost every other horror movie I’ve ever seen. Most folk horror already has a way of distinguishing itself, but by invoking Jewish folk horror, The Golem ensures it is like nothing else on the modern genre landscape. The closest point of comparison would be Robert Eggers’ brilliant The Witch, but only in its ambition and attention to region and culture. Both films also deal with a fear of the “other,” and what happens when a real other is introduced—one that people actually should be afraid of, punishment for their xenophobia. It’s only right that a “Jewish horror” film like The Golem should deal so explicitly with the horror of Jewish persecution.
Beyond its cultural commentary, though, The Golem is also saying a great deal about grief. Ariel Cohen’s screenplay draws a clear connection between Jewish history—a history full of death and loss—and the past shared between Hanna and Benjamin. The film suggests there are two ways to cope with the trauma of the past: to accept the tragedy as Benjamin does, living with the sadness but still trying to live, or to become paralyzed by loss like Hanna, unable to move forward, angry at God and everything else. It’s this anger that leads to the creation of the Golem, a monster that exists only to unleash violence on the village’s—and eventually Hanna’s—enemies. And unleash violence it does. The moments of violence and gore in The Golem are spectacular, whether depicted as they happen or just their bloody aftermath. The Golem isn’t interested in leaving bodies intact.
Refreshing in its originality and impressive in its execution, The Golem is one of the best titles in Dread’s growing catalogue of films. Between their last effort and this one, the Paz brothers are making horror movies with a specific cultural voice. That’s very exciting. There’s enough sameness in the horror genre that I’ll gladly follow any filmmakers who dare to carve out their own space—especially when that space includes movies as good as The Golem.
Movie Score: 3.5/5